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The Ensemblist is an inside look at the experience of being a Broadway performer- from the first rehearsal through performing eight shows a week and beyond. Whether you’re an experienced theatre professional or a passionate fan, The Ensemblist will give you the opportunity to get to know new performers and the great work they do onstage, while also shedding light on some of the hidden innerworkings of the Broadway experience. Created and hosted by Mo Brady (The Addams Family, SMASH) and Nikka Graff Lanzarone (Chicago, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), The Ensemblist is the only podcast that shows you Broadway from the inside out. 

Blog

Ensemblist Training at Elon University

Mo Brady

What makes a musical theatre program successful at training ensemblists? Is it their focus on creating triple threats? The streetwise business savvy they teach their students? Or is it just something about the school’s culture?

For this series, I interviewed faculty and alumni at some of the American colleges and universities that send the largest number of graduates into the ensembles of Broadway shows. By asking them about their training and how their students define career success, I hope to unpack the commonalities between some of the country’s most prolific breeding grounds for Broadway ensemblists.
— Mo Brady
ElonLogo.jpg

ELON UNIVERSITY

DEPARTMENT OF PERFORMING ARTS

BFA IN MUSIC THEATRE

Found in 2000

One of the nation’s newer Music Theatre BFA programs is that of Elon University, a liberal arts school in North Carolina. In less than two decades, the school has built a strong reputation for educating actors in many different types of Broadway shows.

This focus on versatility comes was a keystone of the program from its inception says Cathy McNeela, William S. Long Professor and Professor of Performing Arts: “In building Elon’s Music Theatre program from the ground-up, we were able to create a program that valued each student as unique and creative artists. From the start, the heart and spirit of our MT program has always been evident. Many people describe our program as being a safe space filled with unique, individual artists with incredibly diverse skill sets.”

This importance on diverse skill sets in echoed by the program’s alumni. “I chose Elon because I knew that I wouldn’t be pigeon-holed into being one thing,” says JJ Niemann, an Elon graduate in the ensemble of Broadway’s The Book of Mormon. “I saw I would be allowed freedom to explore every facet of myself, my skill sets, and my interests from dancing in an ensemble or taking on a lead role to choreographing and assistant teaching.”

 Elon Alumni Drew Reddington, Nasia Thomas, Madison Johnson, Gerald Caesar and JJ Niemann

Elon Alumni Drew Reddington, Nasia Thomas, Madison Johnson, Gerald Caesar and JJ Niemann

Niemann is one of more than a dozen Elon grads currently working on Broadway, from Dear Evan Hansen’s Taylor Trensch to Mean Girls’ Barrett Wilbert Weed. Longtime Broadway ensemble stalwarts like Daniel J. Watts (Hamilton) and Lindsay Northern (Wicked) also cut their teeth at Elon. In addition, 11 Music Theatre majors from that last five graduating classes have performed on Broadway, from vocal-heavy shows like Beautiful and The Great Comet to dance-centric productions like Cats and Holiday Inn.

“Our triple-threat training at Elon equips students with a large toolbox of skills to use in Broadway ensembles,” remarks McNeela. “We train students equally in all three areas, with numerous core acting classes and acting electives, private weekly voice lessons every semester, several contemporary and pop/rock vocal classes and a dozen types of dance classes.”

Elon’s music theatre majors take a course titled Dance for the Musical Stage (DMS) all four years at school: “DMS not only focuses on dance technique, but the character being danced, uncovering the motivation behind every move made while remaining true to what makes you unique,” says Gerald Caesar, an original cast ensemblist of A Bronx Tale currently playing Simba in the national tour of The Lion King. “I didn't enter school with a dance background, so this class made a big difference in the way I approach dance/ensemble characters.”

“In DMS we learned a lot of original Broadway choreography ranging from Agnes de Mille's ‘Hornpipe’ to Andy Blankenbuehler's ‘96,000,’" says Adam Kaplan, currently playing the lead role of Calogero in A Bronx Tale on Broadway. “Learning all these different styles helped us to be more versatile dancers and taught us to pick up difficult choreography at quick pace.”

Elon’s concentration on versatile performers is not limited to their dance classes, but a focus throughout the department’s curriculum. For Matt Meigs, a veteran of three Broadway shows and current Wicked tour ensemblist credits his Performance in Music Theatre for helping him “learn to academically and emotionally tell a story through song. Some might overlook how important an ensemble might contribute to story through song, but that is what brings a musical from ‘great’ to stunning and unforgettable.”

 Adam Kaplan and Ginna Claire Moffat in HAIR at Elon University

Adam Kaplan and Ginna Claire Moffat in HAIR at Elon University

“One of the reasons I chose Elon is because they believe that the best kind of performers are the ones who are worldly and multifaceted artists,” remarks Kaplan. “So a good portion of our curriculum was spent outside of the center for the arts. One of my favorite classes I took outside of my music theatre requirements was a class called Entrepreneurship in the Arts. While not geared for music theatre majors specifically, it taught me to think about myself and my career as an actor as a business”

Beyond the classroom, McNeela and Elon Faculty use the show's productions as an opportunity for ensemblist training: “In most shows, we also have two assistant choreographers per show who also act as swings for the production – so, if desired, students are able to master the art of swinging a huge production at some point throughout their four years.”

Beyond classes and shows, each year the Music Theatre department puts on a revue called “Grand Night,” which the entire program participates in. Every number is choreographed, staged, musical directed, and arranged by music theatre students. “This is a great opportunity to build ensemble skills, as students participate in a range of numbers from choral and a capella arrangements to full-fledged production dance numbers,” says McNeela.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable things about the Elon program is how they encourage students to to study life outside of the theatre. “At the root of every happy person in this industry is a fulfilled personal life, so we encourage students to take advantage of the opportunities presented by going to a liberal arts school instead of a true conservatory,” says McNeela. “We encourage them to broaden their horizons and pursue all passions, including studying abroad, pursuing extracurriculars, minoring, and even double majoring if they desire it.”

One of Elon’s alumnae who spent time studying abroad Ginna Claire Mason, who performed in the national tour of Newsies before playing Glinda in Wicked both on tour and Broadway: “I think well-rounded people make well-rounded performers, and the more you can learn about the world, the better! Experiencing different cultures burst my little bubble and opened my eyes to the beauty of our big, diverse world.”

“We want our graduates to leave Elon with every tool in their toolbox that they may need in this industry. But most importantly, we hope students leave Elon as well-rounded, informed artists who are unique, confident, and connected to the world inside and outside of the performing arts.”